What Has Happened to the US Army in Iraq?

Recently there have been several reports of incidents in Iraq involving the killing of civilians by the US Army. (“July 30–Two Iraqi civilians on foot shot dead by US soldiers in the Mansour district of Baghdad, Iraq. No weapons or explosives were found. August 8–US forces fire on a car carrying an Iraqi family at a checkpoint north of Baghdad. Five Iraqis, including three children, were killed, and two others wounded. August 11–US soldiers kill six Iraqi civilians at three different checkpoints in Baghdad, Iraq. No weapons or explosives were found.” And so on.)

There is no doubt that civilians are being killed in increasing numbers, and the matter of army involvement is apparently being investigated. Last month, before the present series of killings, a US military spokeswoman, Major Josslyn Aberle, stated in an email to the Associated Press (she refused to comment by interview) that soldiers “work very hard to avoid collateral damage and injury to civilians, but regrettably this happens sometimes.” Certainly death and injury happen; and we’ll have a look at ‘collateral damage’ in more detail.

In September 2002 the Pentagon produced Joint Publication 3-06 : ‘Doctrine for Joint Urban Operations’ under the guidance and signature of General John P Abizaid, at that time Director Joint Staff and now overall commander of US forces in Iraq. Appearance of this manual five months before the invasion of Iraq was doubtless coincidental, but it is reasonable to suppose that it was distributed widely during preparation for the war, which had been taking place for most of that year. One of its instructions is that “Although civilians, non-combatants and civilian property may not be specifically targeted, incidental injury and collateral damage are not unlawful if caused incident to an attack on a lawful target, and the incidental injury and collateral damage are not excessive in light of the anticipated military advantage from the attack.” The words ‘collateral damage’ mean death, but I cannot understand why soldiers refuse to use the word ‘death’. If politicians and bureaucrats want to try to deceive themselves and the world by disguising the plain and horrible fact that people die violently and are maimed in war, both by intention and in error, then let them. But soldiers should face reality.

No matter the weasel words conjured up by desk-bound wordsmiths to disguise shrieking, agonising bloody death caused by bullets gouging out gobbets of flesh from bodies that spout showers and jets of blood like a berserk fountain, there comes a time when the killing of civilians demands proper investigation. There is no use having an internal inquiry, because nobody is going to believe it when impartial accounts by on-the-spot reporters contradict the findings. Deputy defense secretary Wolfowitz was reported in London’s Times as saying contemptuously that “people in the Middle East will believe just about anything” in order to justify Washington’s exhibiting the bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein. He wanted to convince Arab viewers that the men were dead, and, in the usual ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’ fashion of Bush Washington, contradicted everything that the US had said about the grossness and indeed illegality (by virtue of the Geneva/Hague Conventions), of displaying mangled enemy bodies on television.

The point of noting this statement is that Wolfowitz was closer to understanding the Iraq situation than he knew. People in the Middle East — and in America and everywhere else — do tend to believe what is shown on their television screens (even if it’s Fox News, heaven help us). But the problem (and regret) for such as Wolfowitz is that they cannot prevent the truth becoming known eventually. When Arab television stations show scenes of hellish carnage involving dead women and children in Iraq this is decried as anti-American propaganda. But when the Pentagon demands that Iraqi dead bodies be displayed like meat on a butcher’s slab, Wolfowitz declares it has to be done because Arabs won’t believe people are dead until they see them dead. This is crassly condescending — and tells us a lot about the mindset of the Pentagon as represented by Wolfowitz and his chief, Rumsfeld, who is ever-ready to explain how pleasant life is in Iraq now that it has been occupied. As long ago as 11 April Rumsfeld was saying “here is a country that’s being liberated, here are people who are going from being repressed…and they’re free. And all this newspaper could do . . . they showed a man bleeding, who they claimed we had shot — one thing after another. It’s just unbelievable.”

Unbelievable, indeed, because here is a description of one incident last week, reported by Justin Huggler of Britain’s ‘Independent’ newspaper, but not mentioned in any US mainstream media, nor, of course, by the fanatically pro-Bush, pro-war London papers, the Times and the Daily Telegraph, both owned by magnates who have financially-related interest in government media policies in the US and the UK.

“It happened at 9.30 at night . . . long before the start of curfew at 11 pm. The Americans had set up roadblocks in the Tunisia quarter of Baghdad, where the abd al-Kerim [family] lives. The family pulled up to the roadblock sensibly, slowly and carefully, so as not to alarm the Americans. But then pandemonium broke out. American soldiers were shooting in every direction. They just turned on the abd al-Kerims’ car and sprayed it with bullets.” It was reported that “They killed the father and three of the children, one of them only eight years old. Now only the mother, Anwar, and a 13-year old daughter are alive to tell how the bullets tore through the windscreen and how they screamed for the Americans to stop.”

Here is what US Army Manual FM3-06.11, ‘Combined Arms Operations in Urban Terrain’ has to say about “Urban Operations Under Restrictive Conditions”:

“All enemy military personnel and vehicles transporting the enemy or their supplies may be engaged subject to the following restrictions: a. Armed force is the last resort. b. When possible, the enemy will be warned first and allowed to surrender. c. Armed civilians will be engaged only in self-defence. e. Avoid harming civilians unless necessary to save US lives . . . . i. If civilians are in the area, do not shoot except at known enemy locations . . . q. Treat all civilians and their property with respect and dignity . . . r. Treat all prisoners humanely and with respect and dignity.”

Further, the Manual states “Soldiers should learn basic commands and phrases in the language most common to their areas. When giving these commands or phrases [sic] they should speak loudly and clearly at a normal rate . . . All soldiers should be given a basic language translation card.” This is civilised common sense. There is nothing sensational or impractical in these orders governing conduct of urban operations by the US Army. Except that every one of these orders was flouted last week, in considerable measure.

“Armed force is the last resort”. Wrong. Armed force has been the first resort. When four men suspected of being arms’ dealers were detected by US troops they were placed under observation. Reuters reported “When the four men began unloading weapons and what appeared to be elements for making bombs [from a car], US soldiers opened fire.” Lt-Colonel Steve Russell, the commanding officer of the soldiers who killed the men said “They began to pull additional weapons out of the trunk and they became combatants at this point.” What does this say about the order “When possible, the enemy will be warned first and allowed to surrender”? There is no answer to that question (just as there is no justification for killing unarmed people in riots because troops must “Avoid harming civilians unless necessary to save US lives”). These men were civilians. They were unloading weapons from a car. On 14 June the occupying power declared display of weapons in public to be illegal but did not indicate what punishment would be meted out to those who disobeyed its law. It is not disputed that the men did not fire at American soldiers or in any way threaten them. They were killed. That act was murder.

What has happened to the US Army?

Then there is “Treat all civilians and their property with respect and dignity.” This should be considered in conjunction with the declaration by the US occupation administrator, L Paul Bremer, that “we” ought to “remind ourselves of a range of rights that Iraqis enjoy today because of the coalition’s military victory.” Well, here is a description of some of the rights of women and children: “Col. David Hogg, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, said tougher methods are being used to gather intelligence. On Wednesday night, he said, his troops picked up the wife and daughter of an Iraqi lieutenant general. They left a note: “If you want your family released, turn yourself in.” Such tactics are justified, he said.”

Since when were wives and children deemed non-civilians? Are children to be used as bargaining counters? This is totally against the Geneva Conventions and against all human decency. The Nazis did this, dammit. It was one of their preferred tactics in occupied territories. Are the wife and children of Colonel Hogg considered combatants, just because he wears uniform? Can this man imagine what it would be like for his own family to be treated like this? Do the American people know what is being done in their name? This is terrible, and I never thought that an officer of US Army could ever lower himself to this sort of despicable action. I served in the Australian army in Vietnam and knew the US army well. It was rough, tough and barbaric in these days, but I thought this type of brutish and uncivilised behaviour was a thing of the past that went out after exposure of the My Lai atrocities. Apparently not.

What about “Treat all prisoners humanely and with respect and dignity”? Here is what happened to an Iraqi policeman, Sergeant Muhsen, after two of his colleagues were mistakenly killed by US soldiers on 9 August. “Three soldiers surrounded me. I got down on my knees, hands in the air, holding my badge. One of them kicked me in the back and I fell to the ground. Another one kicked me twice in the face. They put their boots on my head and pressed it into the ground . . . I kept saying “police, police”. I don’t speak English but it’s the same word in Arabic . . .” Sergeant Muhsen was not a combatant. One wonders if the soldiers who killed the two policemen and beat up Sergeant Muhsen had been issued, as required by the US Army’s own manual, “a basic language translation card” indicating that “police” means “police”. And did they give the police a chance to surrender before killing them?

Conditions in US jails in Iraq are quite as awful as they were under the previous horrible regime, and, exactly as under that fascist domination, ordinary citizens have disappeared, their place of detention unknown to their families. The Geneva and Hague Conventions have been totally ignored by the occupying power in a fashion that is not just despicable but completely at odds with the declaration by Bush that “democracy is being restored to Iraq”. Democracy? Is it within the Bush definition of democracy that, as recorded by Amnesty International, and reported from first-hand by Associated Press, that a civilian detainee “was bound and blindfolded, kicked, forced to stare at a strobe light [presumably after removal of the blindfold] and blasted with ‘very loud rubbish music’.” (He was released without charge.)

In the interests of democracy (or so one must presume) the occupying power shut down the newspaper Al-Mustaqilla (The Independent) for undisclosed reasons. On 21 July tanks blocked off the approaches to its building, then soldiers and Iraqi policemen broke into the premises where “They turned everything upside down, confiscated the newspaper’s safe (with 1.5 millions ID in it), the computers and personal documents of the chairman, Mr. Abdul-Sattar Alshalan. They arrested Mr. Alshalan, who is currently imprisoned at an unknown location.” It is flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions to refuse to provide details of the whereabouts of prisoners to next of kin. Mr Alshalan and thousands of others are being kept in confinement by the US Army without any notification of their location or physical condition being made available to relatives or the International Red Cross.

This is not the US Army that I knew to be forged after the brutality of Vietnam to be a highly efficient military organisation, yet one with inbuilt compassion and high regard for human rights. What the hell has gone wrong?

After the random killing of five civilians in a botched raid in Baghdad on 27 July the regional commander, Lt-General Sanchez, was asked if there would be any apology by the US Army for what occurred. He stated that “Apologies are not something we have within military processes.” Here is some news for General Sanchez: apologies are something you damned well ought to have within your processes. And if you don’t apologize for what the army has obviously done wrong, the entire occupation force will be considered to be callous, arrogant, unfeeling and as regarding itself above the laws of God and man.

There is no doubt that war crimes have been committed by US troops in Iraq. The “Doctrine for Joint Urban Operations, JP 3-03, 16 September 2002, sums it all up. It states, quite rationally, that war crimes are more likely to be committed when there are:

(1) High friendly losses. [These are increasing week by week. Soldiers have become extremely nervous and thus prone to panic and hence unthinking action.]

(2) High turnover in the chain of command. [All senior commanders have been replaced within the last month, along with at least five lower down the chain in the past ten weeks; anyone with the slightest knowledge of the Art of Command would have told Rumsfeld that this was insane. It was especially stupid of Rumsfeld to remove a young Marine officer from combat service in Iraq to make him one of his ADCs.]

(3) Dehumanisation of the adversary. [There is hardly a US soldier who regards Iraqis as other than sub-human. They have been encouraged to regard them as such, because they were sent there to “avenge 9-11”, as is indicated by the slogans on so many helmets.]

(4) Poorly trained or inexperienced troops. [None of the troops committed to Iraq by Rumsfeld were trained in urban guerrilla warfare, which is what is taking place at the moment.]

(5) The lack of a clearly defined adversary. [Of course there is no clearly-defined adversary. It is probable that most Iraqis hated Saddam Hussein, but loathing of the US increases every time a raid is conducted at 3 AM with doors being kicked in, with men humiliated, blindfolded and handcuffed in front of their womenfolk — thus creating more adversaries.]

(6) High frustration level amongst the troops. [Interviews with US soldiers — who are now forbidden to speak with the media — have shown their resentment of the Pentagon’s handling of the occupation and their own personal administration. One has only to go to American internet sites such as http://www.bringthemhomenow.org/ to realise the enormous frustration amongst soldiers serving in Iraq. Rumsfeld is detested and despised. Not only this, but there were stories, denied by Pentagon spokesmen, that combat pay was to be reduced. The fact that rumours of this sort are being spread within the army itself is a sure sign of exceedingly poor morale.]

What we see in Chapter III of General Abizaid’s Manual is, coincidentally and with horrific irony, an exact prediction of what is happening in Iraq concerning war crimes. Every single one of the criteria listed in the Doctrine is met with amazing exactitude. The situation in Iraq is frightening, and every time another brutal arrest is made, every time women and children are terrorised in the small hours of the morning, every time a male civilian is humiliated and kicked, every time a civilian is killed in a spray of unaimed bullets, there is deeper hatred of the invader. It cannot be predicted how it will end. But one thing is certain: the US Army must abide by its own rules. If it does not, it will eventually suffer a moral and morale collapse. Another victim of collateral damage.

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes about defense issues for CounterPunch, the Nation (Pakistan), the Daily Times of Pakistan and other international publications. His writings are collected on his website: www.briancloughley.com.

He can be reached at: beecluff@aol.com


Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.